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How to Write a Haiku Poetry

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Writing Quality Haiku's

Poetry of any kind is a challenge to write, regardless of where it originates and the form of the poem. Though the haiku is technically a short and simple poem, it will require time to properly compose your thoughts into the appropriate form. Before it is possible to compose the poem, anyone writing the poem must first understand what a haiku is and how it differs in English and Japanese.

Japanese Haiku

The haiku originates in Japan and while it has changed over the years since it was first created, two main elements of the poem remain: it has 17 syllables and the content is about nature.

Understanding the history of the haiku is an important part to understanding the formation of the poem. Without the history of how the poems began and where the haiku deviates from the traditional Japanese poetry before it started is vital to creating a poem that suits the form and style of a haiku.

Before the haiku became a stand-alone poem, it was originally the introduction to a longer poem called the hokku, or starting verse. As such, originally the haiku was the important first element of a poem that was meant to build into a full poem by adding the haika, or the remaining long chain of words.

Though the hokku was originally only the introduction or first verse of a poem, it was given great importance in Japan to the poem’s composition and sometimes the poet wrote only the hokku while leaving off the haika.

The haiku became a separate type of poem due to the efforts of Masaoka Shiki. Masaoka Shiki started working on reforming Japanese poetry during the 1880s and finally saw his efforts form a new type of poem, the haiku, in 189Mr. Shiki made the haiku an independent poem that stood on its own with a single verse and minimal syllables.

Haiku History

Since the haiku was not actually formed until the late 19th century, the great Japanese poetry masters of the past like Basho or Yosa Buson were actually writing a hokku instead, though in modern eras the hokku is now considered a haiku.

The modern Japanese haiku has one more influence that differs from the original ideas of Masaoka Shiki. Kawahigashi Hekigoto worked to take the reform further and make the poetry fresher.

In his proposal, the poem should not contain a center of interest, or the attention getter, that other poems require. It was Mr. Hekigoto’s idea that having the center of interest in the haiku would detract from the reality of the poem and since the poem is not followed by further details in a long poem, this attention grabber is not necessary.

The second part of Kawahigashi Hekigoto’s proposal was the poem should use the poet’s first impression of subjects in daily life, colors or nature as it is rather than editing those impressions.

Haiku Influence

Due to the influence of Masaoka Shiki and Kawahigashi Hekigoto, the Japanese haiku developed into a short poem that lacks an attention grabber, but contains the first impression of the poet about the nature of the world around him or her.

The key feature that makes a haiku different from other poetry is the next step in creating the haiku. The Japanese version of the haiku has a very strict pattern and a reference to nature.

The main key feature of the Japanese haiku is the strict adherence to the syllables: five, seven and five syllable pattern forms the poem. It is also written on a single line so that a reader can see all of the parts of the poem together.

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Understanding the history of the haiku and the form in Japan is only one part of understanding the method of writing the poem. For English speakers, you must also understand the ways that haiku differ between English and Japanese.

Haiku in English

The English language and the Japanese language are very different and as such the haiku looks and sounds different when written by an English speaking American than it would when written by the Japanese speaking individual.

The first key difference between English and Japanese that affects the haiku is the number of syllables it takes to form a word. In the Japanese language, one word is often changed into different forms and by making a small change the number of syllables can increase or decrease.

For example, if the Japanese poet were thinking of putting the word meaning “to eat” in his poem, he could use “tabemasu” or “taberu” and shorten the number of syllables while maintaining the integrity and meaning of the word. In English, changing the number of syllables in a word requires either changing the tense, which might ruin the poem, or changing the word.

Due to the ability of the Japanese language to adapt words, many times the Japanese version of a haiku will have more words put into the poem than the English version can manage.

The syllables used in the haiku in Japan are always strict and follow the pattern as closely as possible. In the English, sometimes the haiku will deviate slightly from this strict adherence to pattern.

English Interpretation

In English, the strict observance to the number of syllables might not be possible depending on the message the poet is trying to convey. In Japanese, the use of a five, seven and five pattern that forms a haiku is easier due to the language differences. A haiku in English, particularly American English, might not work out as well with the exact syllable pattern.

According to Jack Kerouac, it is not always necessary in an American haiku to adhere to the exact syllable pattern because the language differences make it difficult. If the poet is inspired in English to write the short, three-lined haiku based on something he or she sees, English might not allow enough syllables to convey the thoughts or more syllables might be necessary.

In fact, if the Japanese haiku are translated into English, many end up not adhering to the syllable rules because the words in Japanese and English do not translate perfectly.

The last key difference between an American English haiku and the Japanese haiku is the use of nature. In Japanese, a nature word called kigo is a major element of the poem. Haiku were originally an observation of something found in nature and thus it is a major part of the poem. Even an observation about a family, child or non-nature related object will use a seasonal association to give a feeling of nature.

The Japanese poets will generally look up words in a seasonal almanac to find a word that will bring nature into a poem that is not actually about nature.

In American English, many poets do not understand the use of kigo and might not put it into the poem. This is partly due to misunderstandings about the purpose of the seasonal words, or saijiki, in the poem. As such, English haiku do not necessarily strictly observe the rule about the observation of nature.

When you plan to write a haiku, understanding the differences between the two languages and the method of making the poem is a key component to writing a great poem.

Writing the Poem

Understanding the haiku’s history and the differences between the English and Japanese versions of the poem is a key component to writing the poems. Unfortunately, it is not the only factor involved in forming a great poem. Anyone planning to write a haiku should expect the poem to take time and that it might require some editing before it is finished.

Before starting any writing and after understanding the key historical facts and differences between English and Japanese haiku, taking the time to read the haiku written by others will go a long way in helping you learn to form your own haiku.

Pick up a book of poetry that contains haiku from the library or bookstore and spend some time reading the haiku. Notice the form and shape of the poem. In general, most English writers split the poem into three lines and usually will try maintaining the five, seven and five pattern.

Notice the topics of the poem and the style of writing. If the poem does not follow the strict five, seven and five pattern, notice the differences and look for the reason it uses a different syllable pattern. For example, if the poem would not make sense with another added or if taking a word out would compromise the meaning of the poem, the poet might end up altering the poem’s pattern.

Language Differences

The poems written by someone from Japan might not split up the poem or the translation might not have the appropriate syllables. When reading a translation from Japanese poets, note the use of seasonal or nature words that form the haiku. This will help provide you with a greater understanding of the use of season and nature in the poem.

Taking the time to read other haiku gives a better understanding of the form and shape of the poem.

Observation a key component of writing any haiku. A haiku is an observation of nature or something around you. In fact, the observation often lends inspiration for the poem to form. Without seeing something and making a note of it, the poem will end up stilted and poorly written.

Before writing anything down to form a poem, taking a walk, sitting in a park or even going fishing is beneficial. Take a notebook with you during the walk or in the park and look around at everything that surrounds you. For example, if you are in the park you might notice children playing, a dog being walked by his owner or spring flowers just starting to bloom.


Write down the observations in the notebook. So, if you are sitting on a bench in the park you might write down phrases or sentences like “the sun is bright, the flowers are starting to bloom and children are playing a game of tag.”

Record any sight, sound, smell or action that you notice while sitting in the park or walking around town. It can be anything striking or even something usually overlooked, like the tiny yellow flowers that are almost hidden by the grass.

The observations recorded in the notebook should always have something related to the nature around you, even if it just a note that the day is sunny, snowing, raining or overcast.

Writing Out Words

Writing out nature words makes it easier to form the poem later. Once you have the observations in place, you are ready to start working on forming the poem. Since nature or seasonal words are a necessary part of the haiku, a good place to start is with the nature word.

For example, if you noted during the observation that the day was overcast and gloomy and you know the season is summer, you might write words like summer, storm, gloomy, overcast, humidity, angry clouds, warm rain or any other word that somehow brings the weather together with the season.

The haiku does not need to have an obvious seasonal or nature word, such as using a summer sport to convey the season rather than saying “it is summer,” but the audience should innately know the season based on the words you select. In Japan, a poet might use words like sakura for cherry blossoms or umi for ocean to give the audience a mental image of the season. In English, you might use words like daffodils or baseball to give a mental image of a specific season.

Pick out two or three words you liked best from the list as potential options for your haiku.

Five Senses and Haiku's

The five senses play a crucial role in the formation of a haiku. All real haiku discuss something that anyone might see, hear, taste, touch or smell. While it might show a different perspective on the observation, it will only provide information that others might also experience. In the poem, a poet should only mention something that is observable.

The haiku must be something that any reader will relate to. For example, the feeling of warm rain is something a reader can imagine. The poet should not try putting a metaphor or special meaning on the five senses. If the rain is warm, it is warm and does not require analysis.

A poet who takes the observation and tries to put an analysis or meaning to the observation is not properly forming the haiku. The reader cannot see, hear, taste, touch or smell an analysis of the observation that forms the idea. As such, adding an analysis makes the poem too complex and thus ruins the integrity of the poem.

Comparison and contrast is another key feature of the haiku. In general, one line of the haiku will bring something to mind while the other two contrast or create a comparison with the other line.

This is perhaps one of the hardest parts of writing a haiku. Fortunately, writing down the observations makes it easier to find something that creates a comparison or contrast.

Contrasting and Comparing

For example, if you were taking a walk and the day was a clear and sunny summer morning, a contrast to that cheerfulness might be the observation of a nervous young mother watching her child at play. The contrast between cheerful weather and the young mother might form a poem that shows the essence of new parents: nervousness despite good circumstances.

In this type of situation, you might start the poem with the image of a bright, sunny day. Such as writing the first line stating “a summer morning” and then follow through with the two lines about the mother and her child, such as “the young mother gazes at her playing children.”

The haiku formed from the observation of a mother watching her children on a cheerful day is thus:

A summer morning, The young mother gazes at Her playing children.

By taking the two contrasting ideas of cheerful weather with a nervous parent, the poem becomes much easier. The poem is thus a type of summary of the surroundings that you see in nature or throughout your normal day.

Being Spontaneous

Spontaneity is perhaps the greatest part of a real haiku. Real haiku will always capture a moment in time or an observation in its most spontaneous form.

In some cases, this might mean that the poem will not work if it is broken down into the pattern of a Japanese haiku. This is particularly true in the case of a haiku written in English, where the words and syllables might not always read the same, depending on the dialect and individual.

In the case that the haiku sounds stilted or odd with the proper pattern, a good haiku poet will adjust the pattern to suit the poem rather than trying to change the observation to fit the pattern.

For the beginner, it is usually best to start with the original pattern while writing the poem. By following the rules it is easier to determine if you are correctly writing the poem. After gaining some experience, poets are able to deviate from the pattern and thus form the poem without the formal pattern and format.

The Pseudo-haiku

Just because a poem follows the appropriate format and style of the haiku, it does not necessarily mean the words are actually a haiku. A pseudo-haiku is any five, seven and five pattern “poem” that does not follow the key elements of the haiku. It might not have anything about seasons or nature or it might not talk about something others are able to observe and see personally.

The pseudo-haiku might follow the same basic syllable count as the original, but it is not a haiku. In fact, it has numerous qualities that make it different from a real haiku.

The main component to the pseudo-haiku that differs from the real haiku is the fact that it does not mention nature or seasons within the poem. A pseudo-haiku might cover any topic, even the most off-the-wall and humorous topics that have nothing to do with nature and cannot relate to nature.

The lack of a seasonal or nature reference automatically disqualifies the poem as a haiku because that is one of the very few components required in making a haiku.

The next factor that might disqualify a haiku is that it is a single sentence. A haiku is not a sentence broken up into three lines based on the number of sentences.

The reason a sentence broken up into three lines does not qualify as a haiku is the fact that it will not convey the appropriate contrasting or comparison ideas that a haiku requires. The example of the mother watching her children during a bright, sunny day shows first the cheerful weather and then a second idea of the mother’s vigilance and care. It gives two distinct ideas and is not a run-on sentence.

Anything that does not provide different ideas that contrast or are compared to each other cannot qualify as a haiku because it is merely a run on sentence.

Mysticism

The use of “mysticism” or making statements that sound silly and like they came off a fortune cookie or out of a movie is not a haiku, regardless of the components of the poem.

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Haiku are serious in nature and anything that brings out a feeling that the statement is silly, sounds like something out of a poorly-made movie or conveys a feeling rather than an observation is not a haiku.

It is a type of pseudo-haiku that follows the pattern and style, but misses the key components of the poem.

Another type of supposed haiku is the senryu. A senryu is a type of humorous poem that follows the same type of pattern style as the haiku, but discusses human shortcomings instead.

Senryu is a satirical poem from Japan that is often mistaken for haiku due to the five, seven and five pattern of the poem. Unlike the haiku, it focuses on human nature and humor rather than a nature observation, fact and inspiration.

Like haiku, senryu might have a pseudo-senryu form. Usually, a nonsensical and funny “haiku” is considered a pseudo-senryu due to the fact that it is funny, but doesn’t actually point out a human failing or use satire to convey that humor.

More Tips on Haiku's

Haiku that are formed correctly bring the scene and idea to the mind’s eye. It might be something that you see every day or it might be a sudden observation that took your breath away, but it should always be an observation. Like any type of poetry, writing haiku requires practice before it starts sounding like a master poet. Fortunately, with a little practice and understanding the rules, the haiku you write will start improving.



References:

STL Today: What is a Haiku

Prince Edward Island Department of Education: How to Write Haiku Poetry

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This page was last modified on 3 August 2013, at 17:36.
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